Marshall Column: Sorting Fact From Fiction

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Tigers.

Without a doubt, hundreds of thousands of Auburn supporters are hoping and praying nothing serious comes of the ongoing investigation into sociology director James Gundlach's allegations of academic wrongdoing by department head Thomas Petee.

And without a doubt, many fans of other schools--and not just Alabama--are hoping and praying it's as bad as can be. That's the way life is in college football in the South.

Personally, I'm hoping and praying I can soon concentrate on such questions as who will start at safety for Auburn against Washington State on Sept. 2.

As often happens in such situations, all kinds of information is floating around in cyberspace and elsewhere. Some of it is true. Some of it isn't. I'll try here to make some sense of it all by answering some questions I have been asked.

*If what Gundlach says is proved true, were there NCAA violations? As I've said before, the NCAA generally acts only if athletes are shown to have received benefits not available to other students. Even Gundlach admits there is no sign that happened in this case. Gundlach, however, suggests that academically at-risk athletes were guided to Petee's directed study classes and suggests that could be a problem. Even if they were--and I'm not saying they were--it still comes down to whether athletes were getting special treatment. To date, there is no evidence of any kind that was the case.

*Are there problems with SACS? The way SACS operates and the way the NCAA operates are completely different. The NCAA uses sanctions as punishment. SACS does not. The NCAA, for instance, might sanction a program for rules violations in the past. SACS probation is considered corrective, not punitive. All SACS wants is to be convinced that, if there is a problem, it has been rectified. SACS officials have said Auburn's previous problems will not be considered in this case. Chances are, once interim president Ed Richardson's move to get directed study classes under control is approved by the Board of Trustees, that will take care of any concerns SACS has.

*Why is the investigation taking so long? The only explanation I have is the one Richardson gave, that the committee is basically trying to interview three years' worth of students. Many of them, he said, are gone for the summer or have moved on from Auburn. It's going to take a while. We can only hope it'll be over in 3-4 weeks as he predicted. There are no guarantees it will be, but making sure the investigation is done thoroughly and properly is the right thing to do.

*Is the focus of Auburn's investigation, as Gundlach says, staying out of trouble with the NCAA? I'd say the focus is trying to find out what actually happened and, in the process, staying out of trouble with both the NCAA and SACS. That doesn't really seem to be surprising to me. Trouble with either one is expensive, both in terms of dollars and in terms of reputation.

*What is the fascination of with Auburn? I'm not sure I have an answer for that one. The Times has written four stories in the past 2-3 years that portrayed Auburn in a negative light and a ridiculous recent editorial that spoke of Auburn's "already troubled football program."

*Why would Gundlach go public with his allegations? Again, I can only go by what he said to me. He told me his main motivation was that "Petee isn't fit to be a department administrator." He really did seem like a decent fellow, though I'm sure Petee wouldn't agree.

*Why has Gundlach been allowed to verbally attack Petee without Petee's side being told? That is something about this story that has troubled me from the start. Petee has been given ample opportunity to respond, by me and by others. He has chosen to stay quiet. I suspect the time will come when he will be heard, but I don't know that it will.

*What is the most likely outcome of the investigation? I'm speculating, of course, because the investigation isn't over. I know that Richardson and others have said they do not, at this point, see this as an athletics matter. Even Gundlach has said as much, though he seems to waver from time to time. Part of the outcome--the tightening of controls over directed study courses--is already happening. Petee, a tenured professor, is very unlikely to lose his job, but his department chairmanship could be in jeopardy. Or maybe not. No one has said one way or the other. Even though Gundlach will retire at the end of this year, it's difficult to imagine how the two can work together even for a short time. I'll be shocked if there are formal investigations by the NCAA or by SACS, but I've been shocked before.

*What does all this do to Auburn's football program? It doesn't help, obviously, but it's unlikely to do any significant long-term damage. It'll be brought up over the course of this season a lot more than fans would like it to be brought up. There is great frustration in the athletic department because Auburn coaches, administrators and academic counselors really believe that their academic program is as good as anyone's and better than most. Current and former players are becoming increasingly angry that their work and academic accomplishments are being called into question. It's a bitter pill for everyone involved.

*Does Alabama have its fingerprints on this? That's silly. Alabama has nothing to do with it. This is the result of some apparently poor judgment and the strange and destructive penchant some at Auburn have for public bashing of their university or, in this case, employer.

*What does this all say about Auburn having the nation's No. 3 APR? Unless someone is found to have violated rules, it doesn't say anything about it. Some Auburn athletes took some easy courses. Gasp! What student--athlete or otherwise--doesn't take some easy courses? Sociology or criminology might not be the most demanding majors on campus, but so what? That doesn't help anyone pass English or four semesters of foreign language or math or any of the other courses required for graduation. Auburn's APR might never be that high again--the top 20 is a good guess for where it will be next time--but that has nothing to do with this situation.

*How can (Vanderbilt chancellor) Gordon Gee knowledgeably comment on academics at Auburn? He can't and he shouldn't.

Until next time...

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